To prevent an M23 resurgence in Congo, perpetrators must face justice

Early last November, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the world celebrated the surrender of the M23 rebel group, marking a watershed moment in Congo's chronically unstable peace process. In December, representatives of the defunct armed group signed declarations with the Congolese government committing to peace. Now there are signs of a possible M23 resurgence. Earlier this week, head of the United Nations’ peacekeeping operation in Congo Martin Kobler told the U.N. Security Council he has credible reports that the M23 has begun new recruitment and resumed activities. 

To prevent a resurgence of M23-led violence and restore dignity to victims of the deadliest war since World War II, U.N. Special Envoy to the region former Irish president Mary Robinson and U.S. Special Envoy former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) must urge regional heads of state to apprehend and prosecute high-level M23 perpetrators. Uganda must commit to transferring M23’s former commander Sultani Makenga back to Congo, where Congolese authorities must prioritize building the infrastructure to prosecute him and other high-ranking perpetrators of atrocity from all sides of Congo’s conflict. 

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The M23 was Congo's most formidable armed group until its defeat by the Congolese armed forces in early November. Makenga and others have been indicted by the Congolese government for war crimes and crimes against humanity. A number of the group’s high commanders are now under the auspices of Rwandan and Ugandan authorities, marking another victory given consistent difficulties in apprehending the world’s most wanted accused war criminals. Questions of amnesty dominated peace talks in Kampala last year, with stakeholders clashing over what to do with high-level M23 commanders. Ugandan, Rwandan, and Congolese officials, together with the international community, must generate a plan to deliver justice and reintegrate low-ranking ex-combatants effectively. 

Over the course of the M23's nineteen-month campaign of terror, its troops burned villages, murdered whole families, and captured children to deploy into battle. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have reported widespread rape by M23 soldiers under Makenga’s command that fractured communities and instilled fear at a low cost. His former co-commander Bosco Ntaganda currently awaits trial at the International Criminal Court for rape and murder. In November 2012, the U.S. placed sanctions against Makenga, other M23 leaders, and the FDLR rebel group to help stop the bloodshed. Evidence also indicates that Makenga facilitated violent gold smuggling networks to funnel riches from Congo's gold reserves.

Makenga's surrender so soon after the fall of the M23 was a rare opportunity to administer justice for some of Congo’s most recent and brutal abuses. But months have passed and Ugandan authorities have yet to come forward with clear information about their fates.

Robinson and Feingold have consistently emphasized the importance of justice for the worst offenders, with Feingold insisting of M23’s commanders: “There has to be accountability. There’s no impunity in this, this time.” Congo’s leaders also shown support by opening trials against its own army officers in the Minova and Sake rape cases. Unfortunately these proceedings have also revealed the justice system’s severe weaknesses, including lack of effective witness protection, due process, and investigations.

Although stakeholders have discussed third country asylum for M23 commanders, this alternative would be a mistake: Congolese victims of the M23 deserve better. We should take third country asylum off the table. This arrangement would place communities at risk of violence orchestrated by exiled commanders and send a message of tolerance for atrocities.

The U.S., U.N., and international organizations should support Congo in establishing a mixed court to prosecute the worst perpetrators on all sides of Congo’s conflict. In doing so, they must take into account the weaknesses in the current system and reforms must be measured and nuanced. A mixed court would enable Congolese lawyers and judges to hold trials with the help of foreign experts. Congo could incorporate lessons from the successes and failures of similar mechanisms in the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone, contributing an improved model for accountability. In each of those places, the U.S. and the U.N. played a key role in shaping and supporting transitional justice options. They should in Congo as well.

Congolese authorities and international actors should also hold thorough consultations with affected communities about their hopes for justice. Victim inclusion is often cast aside as unwieldy and costly, but ignoring it will further entrench suspicions that trials are political or corrupt.

Justice for high-ranking perpetrators of mass atrocity on all sides of Congo’s conflict will not just serve victims. It is a critical facet of building a broader, sustainable peace in Congo. M23 ex-commanders must believe they will be held to account for past abuses and inciting renewed violence. Congolese communities must trust that that state will prioritize accountability and the dignity of ordinary citizens. Fair trials will underpin notions of justice and transparency that Congo needs to build a truly open society and secure lasting peace.

Dranginis is a policy associate at the Enough Project. Siwatula is a Congolese human rights lawyer based in Goma.